Methodist Women's Hospital Patient Blessed With More Than She Prayed for After NICU Nurse Becomes Close Friend
Published: Nov. 10, 2020
Faith is important to Valerie Newton and her husband, Brian. The Omaha couple met on a mission trip.
When they found out they were expecting twins 12 years later, “I prayed constantly that we would make it through with two healthy children,” Valerie said.
And they did.
But not without the help of a very special nurse.
From “Crazy” to Scary
Valerie’s pregnancy went from “crazy” to scary at 24 weeks. That’s when one of her two boys was diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), meaning he was smaller than normal due to delayed growth inside the womb.
“They told us it meant that going full-term for twins was completely out the window,” Valerie said. “And they prepared us for all the other things that come with growth restriction – like the increased risk of stillbirth.”
And the increased risk of infection.
But Valerie didn’t have long to worry about the risks that came with the small baby growing inside her before she herself was given a scary diagnosis: preeclampsia – a serious pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and sometimes organ damage.
At 27 weeks, she was admitted to Methodist Women's Hospital. She was discharged on a Friday.
“But that following Monday I was back in the hospital,” she said. “That’s when they told me I’d stay there until these babies were born.”
Three weeks later, in the early morning hours of April 23, 2019, Valerie woke up to an oxygen mask on her face, an IV in her arm and “a whole bunch of nurses rushing into my room.”
Her smaller twin was experiencing heart rate decelerations, making it clear that it was “go time.” Valerie, 30 weeks pregnant, was wheeled away for a caesarean section (C-section).
Meeting Her Babies and a Friend
Baby Liam was born first, weighing 4 pounds, 4.4 ounces.
“He was not growth restricted,” Valerie said with a laugh. “He is … large.”
Gavin was born a minute later.
“They let me have a quick look at both boys before they took them away,” Valerie said. “But with Gavin, they prepared me. They said, ‘OK, Mom, just prepare yourself. He’s really, really small.’”
Exactly half the size of his brother, Gavin entered the world at 2 pounds, 2.2 ounces.
Those quick, first-look experiences were a blur, Valerie said. In that moment, she knew that she was blessed with two beautiful babies, but she had no idea she was about to gain a friend.
Easing Into a New Normal
Makayla Shandera, BSN, RN, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse at Women’s, was on Gavin’s delivery team and one of the first individuals Valerie met after the boys were born.
“I was on magnesium for my blood pressure, so it was going to be a while before I could see the boys,” Valerie said. “But Makayla FaceTimed me from the NICU and let me see them. I honestly don’t remember much of that conversation. I just remember apologizing for asking her the same questions over and over.”
“From the minute I met Valerie and Brian, I just thought they were the sweetest couple,” Shandera said. “And Gavin – he stole my heart from day one.”
Valerie, who was discharged a week after delivering the twins, felt an immediate sense of comfort with Shandera, but she couldn’t shake what she thought would be the most challenging part of her NICU experience: “Here I was, trying to recover from
my C-section, trying to stay on top of pumping, trying to make sense of everything that was happening, and just like that – they send you home without your kids. That’s a tough drive home. The fact that other people get to take care of your kids when that’s supposed to be your job.”
Shandera helped ease Valerie and Brian into their new normal by decorating the boys’ isolettes, creating scrapbook pages and even orchestrating a mini photo shoot for Valerie’s first Mother’s Day. The NICU began feeling like home for the Newtons. And Shandera would remind them daily to take care of themselves.
“Which is so hard to do,” Valerie said. “Especially with multiples in the NICU. It’s so easy to make yourself the last priority. You do it without even realizing it.”
“Babies can sense our stress,” Shandera said. “So by taking care of Mom and Dad, we as nurses are actually taking care of the baby. Parents are our patients, too.”
A Terrifying New Reality
Just when Valerie and Brian seemed to have a handle on the challenges of being NICU parents, the unthinkable happened. One of the many risks that Gavin faced as an IUGR baby became a reality.
“Gavin developed a staph infection in his blood, which was terrifying,” Valerie said. “It was the first time they had something serious to tell us. And having had a pretty scary pregnancy, you recognize that kind of tone.”
But Valerie and Brian quickly learned that they weren’t alone with their fears and sorrows. They had Shandera.
“She hugged me,” Valerie said. “I remember sitting there holding Gavin. He had an IV in his head. He was sleeping. She hugged me as I cried, and she cried with me. That’s when I realized that these NICU nurses don’t only share in your joys.”
Valerie decided she was no longer going to attend her own baby shower – a day that had been on her calendar long before the early arrival of her twins. Gavin needed her, she thought. But Shandera demanded that Valerie leave the NICU to be showered with love and support from her family and friends. She reassured Valerie that her babies were in the best hands possible.
“I needed that,” Valerie said. “She always knew what we needed. And in my heart of hearts, I knew everything was going to work out OK.”
It did. Gavin made a full recovery thanks to the skilled care of his entire NICU team.
Going Home, Leaving a Second Family
After seven weeks in the NICU, Liam was discharged first. Gavin needed five more weeks and was sent home on oxygen.
Leaving the NICU was bittersweet for the Newtons.
“It’s so overwhelming to leave the people who literally taught you how to be parents,” Valerie said.
It was even more overwhelming for Shandera.
“You get to know these families like … family,” she said. “When you take care of these babies for so long, and you get so used to seeing their parents, and then they’re gone, it’s like, ‘Wait, who am I going to take care of today?’ You’re so happy for them. But it’s … yeah, it’s hard to say goodbye.”
It wasn’t goodbye for Valerie and Shandera, though. Their friendship became even stronger as the days and weeks went on. When Shandera announced that she was pregnant with her first, Valerie showered her with gifts and love. As much as Shandera taught Valerie, Valerie, in turn, perhaps taught Shandera even more.
“The way she genuinely loves her boys,” Shandera said. “She’s the epitome of a mama bear – a huge advocate for them. Someone who always fights for them. I hope that’s me. I can’t wait to be that kind of mom.”
A Nomination Inspired by Love
Valerie knew about The DAISY Award – an honor that recognizes the extraordinary care of nurses. As hard as it was to pick just one nurse to nominate, she knew she had to nominate Shandera.
“I got so emotional writing her nomination letter,” Valerie said as she tried to choke back the same tears she spoke of. “You can only say thank you so many times, and it never felt like enough. She was just so special to our family. The way she held the boys. The way she picked them up. The way she’d sneak snuggles with them and talk to them. You could tell she loved them – like actually loved them. And we just love her so much.”
Honored by the award in October, the unassuming Shandera was shocked and elated.
“They had been gone forever, so no, I wasn’t expecting it at all,” she said. “But wow, what a huge honor. Words can’t describe how blessed that made me feel.”
Two Healthy Boys, One Special Friendship
At 18 months old, Gavin and Liam are doing great. There’s a nine-pound difference between them, but they’re the best of buddies. Liam is running and climbing – he wants to do it all. Gavin’s been off oxygen for nearly a year. He ended up needing a gastrostomy button for tube feedings after coming home from the NICU, but that was removed in June.
“The little stinker still doesn’t want to walk,” Valerie said. “In his own time. We’re not worried. He’s always been more of an observer.”
Shandera admitted feeling “empty” when Gavin and his family left the NICU. But thanks to text messaging, she gets to see photos of both boys growing and thriving. She also gets to catch up with their mother – her friend.
“I knew I wanted to keep in touch when they left,” Shandera said. “I’m so glad we did.”
Her two healthy boys are a testament to the power of prayer – the skilled and caring people that were placed in their lives for a reason. And Shandera, Valerie said, is living proof that sometimes you’re blessed with more than you pray for.